10:31pm Monday 21 August 2017

New 'systems genetics' study identifies possible target for epilepsy treatment

Epilepsy is a common and serious disease that affects around 50 million people worldwide. The mortality rate among people with epilepsy is two to three times higher than the general population. It is known that epilepsy has a strong genetic component, but the risk is related to multiple factors that are ‘spread’ over hundreds of genes. Identifying how these genes are co-ordinated in the brain is important in the search for new anti-epilepsy medications. This requires approaches that can analyse how multiple genes work in concert to cause disease.

Instead of studying individual genes, which has been the usual approach in epilepsy to date, researchers from Imperial College London developed novel computational and genetics techniques to systematically analyse the activity of genes in epilepsy. Published in Nature Communications, the study is the first to apply this ‘systems genetics’ approach to epilepsy.

The researchers studied samples of brain tissue removed from patients during neurosurgery for their epilepsy. Starting from these samples, they identified a gene network that was highly active in the brain of these patients, and then discovered that an unconnected gene, Sestrin 3 (SESN3), acts as a major regulator of this epileptic gene network. This is the first time SESN3 has been implicated in epilepsy and its co-ordinating role was confirmed in studies with mice and zebrafish.

Dr Enrico Petretto, from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Clinical Sciences Centre at Imperial College London and co-senior author of the study, said: “Systems genetics allows us to understand how multiple genes work together, which is far more effective than looking at the effect of a gene in isolation. It’s a bit like trying to tackle a rival football team. If you want to stop the team from playing well, you can’t just target an individual player; you first need to understand how the team plays together and their strategy. Likewise in systems genetics we don’t look at just one gene at a time, but a network or team of genes and the functional relationships between them in disease.

“After understanding how the team plays together, a possible approach to beating a strong side is then to identify a major control point- say the captain or the coach – who co-ordinates the players. This is like our ‘master regulator gene’, which in this case is SESN3. If we can develop medication to target this gene in the brain, then the hope is that we could influence the whole epileptic gene network rather than individual parts and in turn achieve more effective treatments.”

Using surgical samples of brain tissue provides a unique opportunity to study how genes are coordinated in the brains of people with epilepsy. Patients with severe temporal lobe epilepsy who do not respond to medication can undergo surgery to remove part of the brain to relieve their seizures. Our research was able to use brain tissue samples donated by 129 patients to analyse the genetic and functional activity underlying their epilepsy.

Co-senior author of the paper, Dr Michael Johnson from Imperial’s Department of Medicine, said: “This study is proof-of-concept for a new scientific approach in epilepsy. Existing epilepsy medications are symptomatic treatments only; that is they act to supress the seizures but they don’t treat the underlying disease.

Consequently, we find that existing medications don’t work in about one-third of people with epilepsy. Here we have taken a new approach, and identified a network of genes underlying the epilepsy itself in these patients and mapped its control to a single gene, SESN3. This offers hope that new disease-modifying therapies can be developed for the treatment of epilepsy itself.

“Imperial has pioneered the systems genetics approach to common human disease and by applying its specialism in epilepsy and working in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies and other institutes worldwide, we have identified SESN3 as a new ‘master regulatory’ gene of key inflammatory processes in the brain that could be a potential target for new and more effective treatments.”

The Imperial researchers collaborated with the global pharmaceutical company UCB, as well as researchers at the University of Sheffield and the University of Bonn.

“We are currently undertaking further research to better understand how SESN3 controls the epileptic gene network and, more importantly, how we can modify it to treat epilepsy,” said Dr Petretto. “We are also planning to broaden the applications of our systems genetics approach to other disorders of the human brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease and neurodevelopmental disorders.”

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Imperial Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), the Wellcome Trust and the EU’s 7th Framework Programme through its EPITARGET project.

For more information please contact:
Franca Davenport
Research Media Officer
Imperial College London
Email: f.davenport@imperial.ac.uk Tel: +44(0) 20 7594 6127
Out of hours duty press officer: +44(0)7803 886 248

Notes to editors:
1. Johnson, M. et al. ‘Systems-Genetics identifies Sestrin 3 as a regulator of a proconvulsant gene network in human epileptic hippocampus’ Nature Communications (2015). Doi: 10.1038/ncomms7031.

2. About Imperial College London
Imperial College London is one of the world’s leading universities. The College’s 14,000 students and 7,500 staff are expanding the frontiers of knowledge in science, medicine, engineering and business, and translating their discoveries into benefits for society.
Founded in 1907, Imperial builds on a distinguished past – having pioneered penicillin, holography and fibre optics – to shape the future. Imperial researchers work across disciplines to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable energy technology and address security challenges. This blend of academic excellence and its real-world application feeds into Imperial’s exceptional learning environment, where students participate in research to push the limits of their degrees.
Imperial nurtures a dynamic enterprise culture, where collaborations with industrial, healthcare and international partners are the norm. In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK’s first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.
Imperial has nine London campuses, including Imperial West: a new 25 acre research and innovation centre in White City, west London. At Imperial West, researchers, businesses and higher education partners will co-locate to create value from ideas on a global scale.
www.imperial.ac.uk

3. About the National Institute for Health Research
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government’s strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website (www.nihr.ac.uk).

4. The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. www.mrc.ac.uk

5. The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. We support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine.

Our investment portfolio gives us the independence to support such transformative work as the sequencing and understanding of the human genome, research that established front-line drugs for malaria, and Wellcome Collection, our free venue for the incurably curious that explores medic
     


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